Business, Business / Tech Culture

We Asked for Flying Cars. We Got Axl Rose’s Twitter Spat

In a classic doofus misstep, Mnuchin punctuated his tweet with a flag emoji apparently intended to display his patriotism. But he chose the flag of Liberia, which, in fairness, is similar to Betsy Ross’ original work. He quickly deleted and reposted, but by then his original had been seen and preserved as a springboard for mockery. Done in by Jack Dorsey’s refusal to allow us to edit tweets!

Thousands of people commented on the exchange thereafter, including many affirming that Rose’s feisty oeuvre was indeed a boon to America. Rose’s response to Mnuchin was to mention the 70,000-and-counting Covid-19 deaths that have occurred under the current administration.

The spectacle was greatly entertaining. But was it edifying? Of course not. The tweets were just an unusually bizarre display in our ongoing bitter pageant of divisiveness.

Some years ago, Peter Thiel famously griped, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” For years my reaction to that was to say 140 characters (now 280) on Twitter was way better than some vehicle inspired by a cartoon. Much more valuable than a quicker commute, Twitter embodies the internet’s ability to allow almost anyone in the world to instantly broadcast a thought to millions of people. That is historically mind-blowing.

But we all know now that this superpower has also proved corrosive to public discourse. Plus, it’s an easy way for horrible people to target women with vulgar attacks. And I won’t even get into the stink bombs launched by our president. “Liberate Michigan”? Really?

That’s where the single-story theory kicks in. Jack Dorsey had no idea what he was getting us into when he thought of a way for people to use SMS to report what they were having for lunch. (For the record, he confirms that he never imagined he would be triggering Guns N’ Mnuchin-gate.) And so it goes for almost every single big tech company you can think of—they began with great ideas, many of which still deliver real value to people, but left their now-billionaire founders trying to fix all the unintended consequences. Airbnb guts real estate markets. Amazon has closed countless local outlets. And so on. I recently used that one well-worn arrow in my quiver to publish more than 500 pages about how some of Mark Zuckerberg’s lofty ambitions didn’t work out so smoothly.

I get it—we all got smiles from the spat between the singer and the secretary. I got a huge kick out of it myself. And, hey, free speech is messy. But at a certain point the ugliness gets overwhelming. Or at least seeing it get amplified so much does.

Recently, I read that Charlie Brooker, the creator of the Black Mirror series, is holding off on a sixth season. The plot of every Black Mirror episode, of course, is that same one about How Innovation Goes Wrong that I and my colleagues keep telling again and again. Brooker told Radio Times that he didn’t think people could stomach the story any more, and he’s shifting to lighter fare.

Here’s to happy endings.

Time Travel

In a WIRED feature in October 2009, I tried to decode the decisions that made Twitter what it is:

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